When a whale is found on an Oregon beach, the first call goes out to Oregon State University’s stranding network. The stranding network’s first call goes to Bruce Mate, director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute in Newport.
But even Mate, considered one of the world’s leading experts on whales, was shocked when he heard that a dead blue whale had come ashore on Oregon’s Gold Beach in November. After all, the last time a blue whale beached itself on the Oregon coast, Lewis and Clark were the ones who found it.
In November, Mate and nearly 30 OSU graduate students and volunteers headed just north of Gold Beach on the coast to where a fully grown 78-foot blue whale had washed ashore. Researchers spent 10 days on the beach removing blubber — a process known as flensing — to extract the skeleton with two goals in mind: First, figure out what killed the largest animal on the planet. And second, to salvage the bones and preserve them for future generations.
“We’re trying to save for posterity some semblance of awe around its presence on the Earth. It’s something that most people would never get a chance to see,” Mate said.
Thanks to researchers and the workers who extracted the bones, the plan is for many more to see the skeleton for a planned articulation display set to open at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport in 2018. It’s expected to take two years because each of the 189 harvested bones removed in November will need to be transported, cleaned, preserved and reassembled back into a skeleton for the display.
“We’re not just salvaging the bones,” Mate said. “We’re salvaging some value out of its life so that sense of awe we felt will carry on for generations.”
Mate said he'll never forget the moment he first came upon the great beast on the morning of Nov. 4. He had just stepped out of his truck after driving 175 miles down the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway from Newport when the smell hit him.
“This is a 78-foot, 100-ton animal just cooking in the sun," Mate said. “You could smell it well before seeing it. And you could see it from the highway from a mile away.”
Mate breathed shallowly as he unpacked gloves, a pair of green waterproof bib overalls and flensing gear from his truck. But as he turned toward the sea, Mate got a good look at the animal for the first time.
“The emotional impact of seeing such a large whale dead hit me hard and I’ve seen this kind of thing elsewhere around the world,” Mate said. “But people seeing this for the first time around me immediately broke down in tears. It’s a life-changing moment.”
Natalie Mastick, a graduate research assistant who has assisted Mate in tagging live blue whales off the California coast, said all her work didn’t prepare her for the moment she saw the whale on the beach for the first time.
“On the water you can only see a tiny bit of the whale at a time. So really, this was the first time I was seeing the entire whale in front of me. And it is a lot bigger than I thought it would be,” she said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. But what really got me was realizing that by being a part of this project, I was helping create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for everyone else who’s going to get to see the skeleton when it’s on display.”
After the "oohs" and "aahs" — and the plugging of the noses — Mate and the researchers went to work.
Cut to the bone
Removing the blubber was the easy part, Mate said. The hard part was removing the hundreds of pounds of meat and organs to get to the bones.
The whale's heart was the size of a small car. Its tongue weighed the same as three full-grown African elephants. A school bus would fit in its mouth. And all of those pieces needed to be removed quickly as the crew also had to contend with Mother Nature.
“We were fighting the tides that would wash up onto us while we worked,” Mate said. “Then, just digging it out of the sand would take hours.”
Mastick said she was happy to volunteer, but there were times when she thought the tremendous labor would be too much for the small crew.
“For the first couple of days I worked on the tail and I never saw my friend who was working on the head,” she said. “We worked straight until sunset every day. Because of the smell it’s not exactly the most appetizing situation, so we wouldn’t stop to eat lunch or anything. Then we’d get a late dinner, spend an hour cleaning ourselves off, go to bed and get back up and start again.”
Each day brought with it new challenges.
“Every morning we’d get there, the whale was covered by water. So we’d have to wait for the tides to go out. But then it would be half-buried in sand so we would spend an hour clearing it out,” she said. “Every time we’d leave at night there was a feeling of dread and hopelessness. What if it gets buried or carried away?”
And as crew members removed the muscle and tissue piece by piece, Mate also was trying to figure out what could have killed the enormous animal.
For humans, post-mortem examination is known as an autopsy. But in the animal kingdom the process is more often called a necropsy. The U.S. Coast Guard first discovered the blue whale from the sky as it drifted toward the beach a few days before it came ashore. Mate said the level of rot, combined with several other factors, lead experts to believe the whale had been dead for at least two weeks before it hit land.
“One of the first things we noticed is that there was not a lot of blubber on this animal. It was not doing well at all long before it died,” Mate said. “November is a time when the animal should have a thick blubber layer and be ready to head down the coast to breed.”
In 2013, researchers discovered what came to be known as the “warm blob” — a mass of warm water in the Pacific Ocean that was expected to end in 2016. Authorities aren’t certain what might be causing the warm blob, but Mate is hopeful that by studying what killed the whale, it might lead to a greater understanding of that phenomenon.
“We don’t have a good understanding of what’s going on but it’s obvious it’s hurting the krill population, which is this animal’s food source,” Mate said. “I’m sure people will want to tie it to global warming, but the warm blob is an example of the kind of thing that isn’t connected directly — at least that we know of. In the past, we’ve studied these animals when things were going well. Now we’re making an emphasis on when they’re doing poorly.”
After studying the whale for weeks, Mate said he is confident that the whale was emaciated and weakened for several months before it died. But there may have been other factors that actually killed it.
“There were some shark bites around the blow hole and from a puncture wound in that area we can tell that it was hit by a ship,” Mate said. “It’s hard to tell if it was pre- or post-mortem. It looks to me like this animal was in a very weak condition, got hit by a ship, sharks attacked the spot where the ship hit, and it crushed the skull and it bled out.”
Mate said that killer whale and great white shark bites were spotted all over the whale and that it’s possible the animal was hunted by a group of killer whales tracking the blood from an initial bite or wounding from a ship.
“Disease could’ve been a factor, but it was too far gone when it came ashore to ever know that for sure,” he said. “We’ll need to study it further. I’m one of the world’s authorities on these animals and the last record I can find of a blue whale washing up in Oregon was during the Lewis and Clark expedition. That’s more rare than once-in-a-lifetime.”
After 10 days and more than 1,000 man-hours put into the job, the crew was ready to face the next monumental step: removing the bones — the lightest one weighing more than 100 pounds and the heaviest weighing in at three tons.
“We needed cranes to actually remove most of the bones,” Mate said. “We had to carry them in big rig trucks one or two at a time.”
Over the next several months, crews from the Marine Mammal Institute will work in conjunction with other groups around the state to preserve the bones and prepare them for the skeletal articulation display.
“This isn’t like putting puzzle pieces together on your dining room table,” Mate said. “All the bones require a heat and chemical treatment to get oil out of them. These animals store a lot of oil in their bones. If we don’t get that out, and it’s inside a building, it would become rancid and stink to high heaven.”
Currently, Mate and other experts in the field are planning out the process as each bone requires its own prescribed treatment. Most of the bones are set to go through some combination of several processes, including a soak in salt water, pressure washing, boiling in stock tanks, steam cleaning and sun bleaching.
“It will take months to get the oil out of some of them, maybe even a year,” Mate said. “We’re still making preparations for what we’re going to do with them here. The bones we have (in Newport) weigh three tons, so just moving them takes a lot of work and planning.”
Before each bone is cleaned, researchers must do a complete inventory of each of the animal’s 189 bones for the planned articulation. In addition, several injuries to the whale itself went all the way to the bones — cracking the skull and some vertebrae. Mate said those bones will be cleaned carefully and later supplemented with plaster.
Many details surrounding the project — including where each of the bones will be prepared and cleaned — are being kept under wraps for security purposes. Mate even checks to make sure the road is clear when leaving the Marine Mammal Institute before he heads out to the site where some of the bones are being kept.
“We don’t want people to come and pick up some souvenirs,” Mate said. “We’d never get them back. There’s no replacing them.”
All told, the entire project is set to cost the team more than $100,000. But for Mate, Mastick and dozens of others who have taken part, the experience has been priceless.
“When it’s actually hanging up in Hatfield, every person who walks into the entrance is going to feel the same sense of awe and wonder that I felt when walking up on the beach,” Mastick said. “You can’t measure that experience. It’s being a part of a project that people will find inspiring for years to come. It’s not hard to see why people break down and cry when they see something like that.”